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Walking and aging: A historical perspective

Walk on by_flickrThe evidence that exercise helps stave off mental decline in elderly people has been mounting for several years now, but an article by Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic today puts this research in perspective by looking back a century at Edward Payson Weston’s walk from San Francisco to New York in 1909, when Weston was 70.

Curtis notes that the field of gerontology, the study of aging, had been around for less than a decade at that point. Most scientists thought brain cells were not capable of regenerating - something we know today that they're most definitely capable of - and doctors were of the mind that too-vigorous exercise could harm mental acuity. Popular reaction to Weston’s trek is documented through newspaper accounts of the day:

A column in the Dallas Morning News admitted that many considered Weston’s walk from ocean to ocean “foolishness” and “an idle waste of time.” But, the writer asked, was it “preferred to the needless senility into which far too many men begin to drift at the period of three score years and 10?”

Curtis eventually moves into recent decades and details some of the recent research into how moderate to vigorous walking can actually improve mental acuity in several populations, including Alzheimer’s patients:

The results [of one long-term study], published in the journal Neurology, were sweeping and conclusive: Those who walked the most cut in half their risk of developing memory problems. The optimal exercise for cognitive health benefits, the 
researchers concluded, was to walk six to nine miles each week. That’s a mile to a mile and a half a day, without walking on Sundays if you’re inclined to follow Weston’s example of resting on the Sabbath. (This study concluded that walking an additional mile didn’t help all that much.)

I have to admit I’m glad I live in this century and not in Weston’s time. I don’t think I have the fortitude he showed in bucking popular opinion - or, to be honest, in walking.

Previously: Even old brains can stay healthy, says Stanford neurologistExercise and your brain: Stanford research highlighted on NIH Director’s blog and The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius
Photo by  Stefano Corso

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